Arendt didn't classify herself as a philosopher.
She was a Jewish academic who fled from Germany to France in 1933 and fled France in 1940, arriving in the United States in 1941 with her husband and mother and illegal visas issued by a U.S. diplomat Hiram Bingham IV – who helped about 2,500 Jews enter the country.
She invented the phrase "banality of evil" from her observations of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. She saw Eichmann as having committed deeds that were monstrous. But rather than seeing Eichmann as a monster, she saw him as a normal and mediocre conformist regarding the values of the National Socialist (Nazi) regime in power.
In her book, Life of the Mind, published posthumously in 1978, she describes people as either thinking or taking things for granted. She considers the two as opposites: in thinking about a subject we are ignoring what we had taken for granted about that subject. Thinking, in other words, is the same as questioning. She believes in questioning and extending that questioning to our new conclusions. If we hold to a new idea dogmatically we are forgetting the process of examination and questioning by which we came to accept it.
Arendt's belief in continuous re-examination – continuous thinking – puts her in opposition to the kind of dogmatism that took hold of the Communist movement in Stalin's time. Regarding the political life of a community, she writes that during times of conformity and crisis, as in Russia under Stalin, questioning becomes an important form of action. Not questioning, she believes, leads to wrong doing.
Assuming a society like Germany's Weimar Republic, France's Third Republic or the United States – pluralistic societies – Arendt believes in politics not as a means to freedom but as the practice of freedom. She believes in discussion and the politics of toleration required by pluralistic democracies. She fears reductionist thinking regarding politics. Some reduce political problems and positions to moral absolutes. In her book On Revolution, published in 1963, she writes of the French Revolution's Rights of Man as an articulation of an absolute that led to the Terror because it aimed at an immediate solution to a political and social problem. Absolute claims, according to Arendt, leave no room for the discussions that are a part of pluralistic democracies.
When the Paris mob gained the sympathy of the professional revolutionaries, she claims, the French Revolution sacrificed the stability of constitutional government. Arendt writes of the American Revolution differing from the French Revolution insofar as it established a constitution that was a political framework rather than a set of moral absolutes – ignoring the slavery question. She points out also that the American masses were not riled up emotionally on the moral issue of hunger as were the French.
Another of Arendt's books was The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951. It is about the intellectual roots of the movement that drove her from her native Germany. Arendt describes the aim of the Nazis and Stalinists as omnipotence. She believes in pluralism – in freedom to maintain a diversity of ideas as well as to engage in diverse political affiliations. She believes in people debating within themselves and a freedom to debate within a society.
Arendt acquired her anti-Stalinism from experiences with Stalinism in Europe in the late thirties and 1940, and she held to it during World War II while Stalin in the U.S. was being portrayed as good ol' Uncle Joe.
The Origins of Totalitarianism describes the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in the early and middle 1800s and its amplification with new imperialism late in that century. She describes the Boers as forwarding modern racism as an ideology during their Great Trek, and she qualifies it as an "ideological weapon for imperialism." The book describes the mechanics of totalitarian movements, including the role of propaganda and terror. Arendt describes totalitarian movements as different from mere autocratic regimes, which seek only to gain absolute political power and to outlaw opposition. Totalitarian regimes, she writes, seek to dominate every aspect of everyone's life.
Arendt was an Epicurean insofar as she believed in enduring. But unlike Epicurus she believed in participation in public life rather than just smelling the roses. Haunted by Hitler and Stalin, she believed that to remain free, people should participate in the political life of their society – to counter the terror and ideology of rulers seeking omnipotence. She did not look kindly upon withdrawing from the world to pursue timeless wisdom or personal salvation. What makes us more than animal members of a herd is our participation moved by independent thought. She saw people accepting and celebrating powerful authoritarian figures not only as protection but as an escape from the responsibility of thinking for oneself.
Philosophically she was at odds with her colleague at the University of Chicago and fellow Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Leo Strauss. They did not argue in writing, but she believed in the possibility of a liberal order and Strauss did not.
Among Arendt's other works is On Violence, published in 1969 – 87 pages. The book touches on political rule and history. Arendt recognizes that power requires approval, support and cooperation. As the book's jacket claims, she argues "against Mao Zedong's dictum that "power grows out of the barrel of a gun," proposing instead that "power and violence are opposites," that dictators resort to violence – to state terrorism – when weakened by a lack of support.
Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.